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Lignin has potential as a drop-in replacement for phenols

Lignin could become the main renewable aromatic resource for the chemical industry in the future, according to an analysis by Frost & Sullivan. The first opportunity could emerge as early as 2015 from the direct substitution of phenol in...


February 13, 2013
By Pulp & Paper Canada

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Lignin could become the main renewable aromatic resource for the chemical industry in the future, according to an analysis by Frost & Sullivan. The first opportunity could emerge as early as 2015 from the direct substitution of phenol in most of its industrial applications: phenolic resins, surfactants, epoxy resins, adhesives or polyester, the study states.
“The industry is just beginning to scratch the surface of lignin’s potential,” explains Frost & Sullivan consultant Nicolas Smolarski. “It is the only renewable source for industrial aromatics production and is de-correlated from the fluctuating price of oil.”
Overall, the lignin business today represents roughly US$300 million.
However, new, developing technologies now allow the extraction of high-purity lignin which can be converted in various high-value chemicals and products, among which are BTX (benzene, toluene, xylene), phenol, vanillin or carbon fibre.
Smolarski explains that “one of lignin’s unique strength is that it can either be used directly as a “drop in” to replace phenols in an existing petrochemical process, or it can be further processed to create polymer building blocks.”
Inevitably, unlocking the potential of lignin involves taking down some barriers. “Limited technology maturity, weak links between R&D efforts and the industry, biofuel development draining government mandates and lack of funding options for biochemical biorefiners are some of the main challenges to the emergence of cost-competitive lignin applications,” adds Smolarski
In its lignin study, Frost & Sullivan explores these challenges and their potential, and proposes a roadmap for the 10 years ahead.